Initial thoughts on Richard Fulkerson’s “Four Philosophies of Composition” (1979).

As I’ve begun to browse over Fulkerson’s “Four Philosophies,” which I first read as an undergraduate several years ago, I’ve started to remember how influential this particular piece was to the field in terms of the disciplinary questions it raised.  Seminal publications by Murray, Bartholomae, Miller, Matsuda, Lunsford & Straub, and others all reflect upon the classifications set out by Fulkerson, as well as the influence these classifications had in the re-aligning of the modern Language Arts programs of American academies.  More than anything, I’m also beginning to recall how powerful James Berlin’s response to this specific work was in his “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories” in the December, 1982 issue of College English.

In Berlin’s introduction to his re-imagining of Fulkerson’s essential four philosophies, he writes:

A number of articles [Fn1.: “I have in mind Richard Fulkerson”] attempting to make sense of the various approaches to teaching composition have recently appeared.  While all are worth considering, some promote a common assumption that I am convinced is erroneous.  Since all pedagogical approaches, it is argued, share a concern for the elements of the composing process–that is, for writer, reality, reader, and language–their only area of disagreement must involve the element or elements that ought to be given the most attention […] Differences, then, are mere cavils about which of these features to emphasize in the classroom (765).

I can’t help but keep this particular criticism at the forefront of my analysis as I re-read Fulkerson, and despite my cult-like worship of James Berlin as the One True God of New Rhetoric, I simply can’t agree with his assessment–especially when he name drops “Four Philosophies” in his footnotes as the primary text he is responding to.  I also can’t help but note that his own approaches similarly remix the basic elements of writer, reality, reader, and language to the same ends as Fulkerson himself.

I believe that it is helpful in defense of Fulkerson to dissolve his essay into the most basic forms of his argument and categorization, and then note where sections of his text reflect specifically on the inability of the instructor to meaningfully impose a will of emphasis in preference to one philosophy or another.

  1. Fulkerson opens his essay by first acknowledging, as Berlin later would for Fulkerson himself, that his classification is derived quite significantly from the work of Charles Silberman in his Crisis in the Classroom.  Silberman’s claim, as interpreted by Fulkerson, is that the problem of the modern classroom is that “educators exhibited a consistent mindlessness about relating means to desired ends” (343).  I’ll return to my problems with this analysis of Silberman’s thesis later on, but for the sake of this summary analysis it should be noted that Fulkerson’s essay is heavily responsive in nature, and that he carefully situates his categorization at the intersection of the current composition field in 1979 and the historical compositional concerns of a decade earlier (and even before that).
  2. Beginning in the second full paragraph of pg. 344, Fulkerson begins describing the philosophy and pedagogy of adherents to his formalist ideology of compositional instruction–a school of thought he roundly and clearly rejects, as does Berlin in turn, for being non-productive and largely abandoned by the field in general.
  3. Following this section, he likewise notes those scholars and teachers he considers adherents of expressionism beginning with the last paragraph of pg. 344, and notes their widespread acceptance in the current academy and their focus on writers’ exploration of the self and the celebration of “personal voice” as paramount to the instructional experience.
  4. Halfway into pg. 345, he similarly notes that mimetic philosophy–which seeks “a clear connection between good writing and good thinking”–has a time-honored status among rhetoricians and compositionalists due to its frequent emphasis on texts and material analysis.  As an interesting side note, his section on “propaganda analysis” deftly ties mimetic composition to the waning cultural poetics of the 50’s, the cultural materialist movements of the 60’s, and the nascent theories of New Historicism beginning to take the forms that would catapult them to popularity in the academies of the early 1980’s.  In a text that provides no other concrete assignment types more specific than “journaling,” his focus specifically on the political/cultural materials of government propaganda is especially noteworthy in that it may signal a strategic move to locate some more “appealing” philosophies as extra-disciplinary, external to the expertise of the traditional composition instructor, and even dated (see references to Jungian dream analysis in his section on expressionist journaling, for instance).
  5. In his final section on specific philosophies, Fulkerson introduces rhetorical philosophy and classifies Peter Elbow as Rhetorician in light (in part) of a claim in Writing Without Teachersthat “theories of free writing, collaborative criticism, and audience adaptation are really classical theories masquerading as modern theories [emphasis added] (346).
  6. What remains, then, is several more paragraphs of analysis of the challenges and dangers of synthesis of these forms and philosophies, which Fulkerson has taken care to hedge as being either datedoverly-specific, or non-productive.  However, the bulk of his analysis of the challenge of selecting a philosophy is not the act of synthesis itself, but rather the tendency of instructors to apply different philosophies to pedagogical process and the evaluation of product.

When Berlin criticizes Fulkerson for “cavils” of “emphasis in the classroom,” I feel he misses the mark twice–once in the fact that Fulkerson takes no particular position on the superiority of a specific philosophy, though he demonstrates presumed deficiencies of each, and once more in his interpretation of apprehensions about students being punished for evaluative metrics at odds with their assigned writing as being an issue of petty objection on Fulkerson’s part.  This is certainly no unfair assessment (see Zirinsky, 1978).  Fulkerson’s methods of categorization may be suspect at times, and his methods for de-legitimizing certain philosophies may be in ways covert and even underhanded, but his disdain for a form of composition that was punitive of product while ostensibly celebrating process is clearly legitimate, even today, and reflects similar concerns by Donald Murray and others several years earlier.

In the end, my deep love for the categorizations and philosophies demarcated by Berlin stand, but I believe his argument would have been strengthened, not weakened, by supplementing rather than disassembling Fulkerson’s own disciplinary analysis.  Assessment and evaluation have always been a heath in which the evolving field of Rhet/Comp has found uneven footing at best, and has found itself repeatedly mired at worst.  Recognizing Fulkerson’s analysis as an assessment of the fairness of mercurial multi-philosophical synthesis to students instead of as a declaration of definite disciplinary categorization reveals a remarkably sympathetic and impassioned call for re-evaluation and reconsideration of the importance of one’s own personal desire to implement philosophy in the face of students’ needs for consistent instruction and productive process.


Huot – What is (and isn’t) the business of the writing instructor/respondant?

I – Let’s not stop talking about literacy narratives

I’ve been thinking a lot since the class completed and discussed their literacy narratives.  Huot (and especially the sections on context in reading and ideology) have made me consider returning to this experience again.

I didn’t do a great job with my literacy narrative, and I didn’t share mine with the class. I did want to articulate (through Huot) some of the problems I have with the conceptualization we use of literacy in writing instruction today (and of “writing,” even)–and consider the degree to which these issues may or may not be universal, specified, etc.

While I was thinking through these issues, I created a social media post where I talked about why I don’t like to personalize writing experience for my students:


To my great surprise, I received largely very supportive and positive responses from over a dozen past and present writing instruction colleagues, several of whom shared deeply personal stories about either their own literacy or having remarkably similar experiences with their own students’ narratives.  I’ll not share specifics or name names here, but writing instructors recounted dozens of instances of student writing addressing traumatic experience–often in very unplanned (and unproductive) ways–across topics including domestic abuse, bullying, sexual assault and trauma, shame, mental illness, suicide…

A few instructors shared stories of their own trauma and how being asked to write about it opened wounds and unearthed past pain.  For their openness, friendship, and mentorship, I’m eternally grateful.

Both in comments and private messages, I heard from writing instructors at almost all levels–and from a half-dozen contexts from basic writing in the two-year college to professional communications training in corporate workplaces.

Most said they avoid personal narratives entirely these days.  Most are in the same place that I am, and most noted that they are uncomfortable with sharing these conclusions and the choice to stop using these genres because they’ve all been taught that “writing” == “expression” and “literacy” == “progressive.”

But what, I’m sure you’re asking, does any of this have to do with Huot, or the general content areas we’re currently inspecting?

II – What do we mean by personal? What do we mean by ideological?

There have been various periods of writing studies that have reconstituted writing as a deeply personal, intrinsically expressionistic, and inherently narrative act.  There have been many reasons for this, and we can theory-bomb (for instance) the 1980s’ strain of activist language instruction from space at this point (Faigley (1989, 1992), Romano (1987), Rose (1989), Freire (1985, 1987a, 1987b), Giroux (1988), Berlin (1988)–the critical pedagogy/New Rhetoric theory wave of the mid- to late-80s was quite consistent if nothing else) who view writing literacy and theories of language as necessary foundations for progressive democracy.

And so, when Huot (2002) notes Nancy Sommers’ (1982) argument that “teachers’ written comments were more concerned with students’ ability to write correctly than to make any kind of meaning” (110), I couldn’t help but immediately wonder who the field at that time believed determines the value of meaning in that relationship.  I remember that Sommers famously argued that many students “think that personal writing is writing about the death of their grandmother. Academic writing is reporting what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has written about death and dying” (“I Stand Here Writing” 425).  And I remember that she argues that writing is about “having the courage to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, even doubt” (428).

I can’t think of anything less fair to students than to label the act of skills acquisition a product of necessary courage.  Students shouldn’t need to be courageous to perform to spec in a writing class.  If they do have such needs, then what is being taught to them is no longer writing, but confession.  I don’t teach confession.  And many of my students express more courage than I’ll ever know simply getting on the bus to school in the morning.  It seems unfair to demand further emotional and intellectual “courage” simply to meet basic course requirements–especially when the discipline has defined itself for the last thirty years along a politicized epistemology which is in direct conflict with many students’ personal beliefs.

In this context, the question quickly becomes one of how we can fairly and productively respond to student writing when we’ve declared writing a product of courage and right-speaking meaning-making practices.  Huot explores in significant depth the challenges of contextual situation for writing assessment, and I think this is a very valid concern (and one that we must continue to attempt to resolve at both personal and institutional levels).

This concern is not separated from the questions of feedback and writing response, either.  In fact, Valerie Shute’s definition of formative feedback includes “information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify his or her thinking or behavior to improve learning” (“Focus on Formative Feedback,” 153).  Wow.  No thanks.  “Feedback.” “Indoctrination.” To-may-to. To-mah-to.

Of course, we could look at the facilitative/directive/corrective/evaluative model, which I tend to use without preferencing one over another for any ideological purpose.  But there’s that nasty weasel language of – I tend to manage it.  That’s better than many, but worse than I’d like from myself.  And many instructors are quite simply taught that “facilitative” == “good” and “directive/corrective” == “bad”; so at least some of us likely do not even tend to try.

III – What do we mean by responding?  What is the business of the writing instructor?

So that’s the question.  What do we mean by “responding,” and how do we think about “right thinking” and “right learning” behaviors?  Huot outlines Zebroski’s modeling of different responsive approaches (which largely parallel my own feedback model)–but Zebroski presents each approach as discrete:  as literally emanating from a different mind and a different ideology (115).  And so, I have a problem with Zebroski; under his model, when we have an ethic of cultural influence (116), or an ethic of ideological consequence (120-122), or an ethic of expectation (117-119), we have chosen to be of a singular mind because we’ve chosen to be a single person with an uncontrollable impulse towards preferentialism.  But that model demands that we make student’s cultural, ideological, and situational lives of the mind “our business”–and that we reckon that business through the lens of a constructed identity driven by an ideological (rather than pedagogical) goal.

I remain completely unconvinced that 95% of what the field of writing studies claims is the business of the writing instructor is anybody’s business at all.  Huot would label this as a “context” of feedback, if Huot recognized its validity.  The choice to make students’ personal lives, personal ideology, personal goals for their writing, personal paths to literacy, personal needs as humans the business of writing instruction is to invade the personal and demand doctrinaire “courageous” writing practice without foundation or pedagogical benefit.

A final note–I was happy when Huot cited Halliday’s (1978) arguments that language as communication demands context as “the key factor” of meaning-making and meaning-sharing… only to see context reappear within every facet of successful student writing response in his “theory of response” (Fig 2.)–which is, effectively, a model of response, but not a theory–but I digress, pick hairs, and equivocate.


This is why I’ve always had a problem with the question of how we teach response–because I was largely taught by established writing researchers in the field who strongly believed you can’t.  I tend to agree.  Response/feedback models are inherently… well… responsive.  They can’t be taught, because empathetic response can’t be taught, only learned through practice (and, hey, empathy).

Of course, the first step towards that empathy is to not believe that your business as a writing instructor is to know what is best for your students.  Which is… still a problem in the field?  I don’t know a more charitable way to say it than that.

Annotated Entry – Burbules Virtuality

Burbules, N. C. (2004). Rethinking the virtual. E-Learning 1(2). 162-183.

I’ve previously used these annotations to look at the organization of pattern language in Lemay and the rhetorical functions of interfacing in Carnegie.  For my third annotation, I want to take these concepts to their logical ends using Burbules’ “Rethinking the Virtual” (2006), which reimagines virtuality not as a (traditionally considered) product of technologies of access but rather as the product of the effect of these technologies in terms of the concept of immersion (to this end, Burbules notes that some authors would describe the genre of science fiction literature as one of “virtual realities” (163)).  Secondly, Burbules argues that virtuality must be reconstituted without the distinction between the “virtual” and the “real” based on assumptions that VR offers an “illusion” which substitutes manufactured space for “real” space (which is both non-manufactured and unproblematically “direct”):

The virtual should not be understood as a simulated reality exposed to us, which we passively observe, but a context where our own active response and involvement are part of what give the experience its veracity and meaningfulness. Hence the virtual is better seen as a media concept, neither real nor imaginary, or better, both real and imaginary. In this sense ‘virtual reality’ is a misnomer (163).

For my own project, this reformulation immediately raises several questions which must be reconsidered in virtuality: a) to what extent can we still consider production and mediation technologies to be deterministic in defining virtuality?; b) how should we consider “immersion” as a manifestation of “canny” experiences rather than “buy-in” with the uncanny?; c) what is the rhetorical function of existing in virtuality when virtuality is defined not by mechanism or technology, but by subjective experience?

It is necessary, in Burbules’ conceptualization, to realize that within computing (and especially interactive entertainment) the “bifurcation of the synthetic and the real has obscured a deeper understanding of what is changing in the ways that we make and explore our worlds, mediated by and through new technologies” (165).  The problem, then, is to reveal these changes through specific approaches (or “aspects”) to the concept of immersion.  Burbules offers four such aspects of virtual experience (“telepresence”) to consider (166-67):

  1. Interest: experiences allow us to consistently discover and interpolate new elements, content, or nodes of interactivity–even upon consistent return to the same spaces/experiences/technologies/mechanics.  However, interest is again subjective–“what is interesting to me may not be interesting to you”–which, while potentially challenging also accentuates the personal immersive context of virtuality (166).
  2. Involvement:  according to Burbules, “an experience is involving when we have a reason to care about what we are experiencing: we pay attention to it because it concerns us in some way” (166).  This might be connected to aesthetics, to mechanics, to narrative, to personal or structural goals.  Burbules notes that involvement might be parsed as a product of involvement – or not (for instance, it may be that it is perceived as personally, socially, or contextually necessary or important).
  3. Imagination:  Similarly, imagination manifests in virtual spaces when “we can interpolate or extrapolate new details and add to the experience [because] actively going beyond what is given is part of what engages us deeply in it” (166-67).
  4. Interaction:  Finally, experiences are interactive when users/experiencers of virtuality can participate within it–“not only perceptually or intellectually but also through embodied action and responses” (167).  Again, Burbules notes that limiting this interaction to a technological environment is “a mistake” because components such as relaxation, participatory body language, rhythmic participation (such as with music), make a “synthetic” space feel more real–i.e.: accentuate virtuality and virtual participation.

These acts of participation are, within “networked settings” functional components of “part of the pleasure of discovery,” which, the author gives as an example, might be why we label so many web browser applications with “intrepid names like ‘Explorer’, ‘Navigator’, and ‘Safari'” (170).

Burbules continues on in the conclusion to explore the emergence of the “cyborg self” (171), and the facts of embodiment in virtual spaces and virtual time.  Most significantly, he argues that:

In the end, it is not the existence of new technologies that has raised questions about the necessity of our bodies for our sense of identity; it is a much larger cultural shift that foregrounds the ‘performative’ rather than ‘essential’ character of our embodied selves […] the embodied self is seen as an artificial constraint, falsely prioritizing one dimentsion of identity (which is iteself a changeable social construction) over others […] it is experienced as tremendously liberating not to allow an embodied ‘fact’ [as the ‘real’ body] to be so determining; and the virtual is proving a fascinating zone of experimentation in how people can move beyond these embodied physical facts, not necessarily for the sake of ‘escaping’ them or denying them, but for changing what they mean to themselves and to others (173).

The value of this, for me, is in considering the concept of digital or virtual embodiments within the context of visual rhetoric and the communication of philosophical, intellectual, and personal applications of these aspects within my object of study, The Witness (2016).  I’ll go more into this in coming weeks, but I do think it’s worth consistently revisiting these questions – how does the title communicate virtuality? How many levels of virtual ‘scope’ are present in the text (hint: a lot more than just one)? How do players experience virtuality, and what is communicated by the opaque and transparent virtual experiences?  What can be communicated to players who have a developed awareness of their virtualities (within a game space which encourages mindfulness and philosophical practice in virtual spaces)?

Burbules, N. C. (2004). Rethinking the virtual. E-Learning 1(2). 162-183.


A singular problem – applying “Speculations and Hypotheses” to the student-assembled curriculum

This week, we’re talking assessment in my pedagogy and instructional design course in a run-up to a visit from Dr. Louise Phelps (my personal hero and accidental stalking victim – she and I have haunted many of the same haunts, and it was not uncommon at my previous job(s) to find handwritten Phelps notes and Phelps assessment folders hiding in old drawers and in banker boxes throughout the department).  I’m stoked to hear from Dr. Phelps on this topic this week, so this blog may end up being a little more fangirlish than is usual for me, and a little less topical.  I’ve done assessment readings and work under her previously, but in the context of WPA, and not teacher-level practice.

Also, returning to assessment is always such a treat for me.  I think about it as being one of the questions in the field where there’s still real, hard work left to be done (and where there will always be more work, because feedback and assessment must necessarily be so contextual and responsive).  It’s fun to be elbows-deep (or Elbow-deep! Ah, puns) in the assessment quagmire.

But I know we’re going to spend a lot of time on assessment in class, so I’m going to focus on an issue I noticed elsewhere that I’m hoping to discuss during Dr. Phelps’ visit.

A lot of the readings people are grappling with in blog posts this week are old standards for the returning Phelps student.  I’m happy to revisit them and see what new stuff I can glean from them–and to spend more time in assessment–but I’m especially excited for the early draft of Dr. Phelps’ new “Speculations and Hypotheses.”  (Ed. note: I’m not sure from what we were offered of Phelps’ work that it’s yet appropriate to quote or share any content from this work-in-progress document, so I’m going to be careful and just broadly make references here).

Louise’s argument that the rhet/comp field has neglected curriculum in the face of alluring pedagogy approaches is one that strikes me as necessarily and inherently true.  I have shared her concern for some time that the “ethical commitment” to teaching students may be misconstrued under the ideological frames of current pedagogies which decentralize the curriculum and the work of curricula (Phelps 1).  I’m excited for her active CFP on ideological transparency and classroom practice in Pedagogy–and I’m thinking about submitting a proposal this week.

I’m intrigued by the concept that “curriculum […] designs are typically written and diagrammed” indicating something “systematically structured,” something which exists in a paradoxical linearity which is in conflict with a non-temporality of design (3).  I think one place that Louise fails to expand on this (yet) is the question of student course/trajectory selection–I hope to address this with her this week, but I think one of the great unspoken challenges of broad curriculum design is that we must design a trajectory of learning for unaware students (and sometimes uncaring scheduling advisors) who doggedly insist on signing up for a disciplinary WAC class in the first semester and push their Comp requirement back to the spring to accommodate late sleep schedules, or extracurricular activities, or four day weekends (or legitimate things, I don’t know.  I can be charitable).  I think of curricula as puzzle pieces that are often all shaped exactly the same with different picture faces.  You may have an idea what the final puzzle should look like.  But it’s all too easy to understand how a student perhaps ended up with something different.

It is here that I think we can highlight Louise’s analytic granularity to understand the challenge of “verticle curriculum” design (6) in sequence.  How can we address the modularity of these spaces, even where such modularity is not necessarily “intended” by the original designer?  How can we address the linear temporality, and non-linear non-temporality, at the same time?  When we–given a box of building blocks–see a skyscraper, but our students see a racecar, is anyone right or wrong?

Who, in short, is curriculum “for” in such cases?  I find it to be a fun and impossible question that struggles in the face of much of what Louise offers in terms of development, assessment, value, design, and stakeholder needs.  In this we can also look to Phelps on agency (8-10), but I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to be found.

How do we find “emergent” curricula?  How do we mediate (or advocate for better) student assembly in any meaningful way in the institutional contexts of student success and university-level advising and First-Year Experience and all that jazz?

And when we realize, as Phelps notes, that pedagogy and curriculum are not nearly the same thing, how does our pedagogy have to change to address this?

See you all in class!